This article was first published in Romanian, on www.contributors.ro
If there is one thing I’ve learned over the last 20 years in Romania it is to not generalise. Although generalising is fun and it seems to make sense of the world, it results in a narrowness and rigidity of thought that can turn into prejudice. And prejudice can have all sorts of negative consequences. If you generalise about a population it is a statistical certainty that there is a large number of that population behaving differently to how you have described. For many years I heard Romanian people telling me that the Rroma people don’t know how to work the land and don’t like to go to school so we made a documentary film called The Land is Waiting which portrays a family of 10 Rroma kids, all of whom work the land and study hard for school and university.
When I was a kid we used to make jokes about the Jews being mean (it was many years before I realised that the rest of the world made jokes about us, the Scots, being mean), the Irish being stupid, the Italians cowardly and we would happily generalise about the Americans being naïve. In my school the French stank of garlic, the Germans had no sense of humour and to this day I can’t shake the impression that Russians are cruel. It was only when I travelled and started to meet the people I would so breezily make jokes about did I realise that all generalisations are nonsense.
But I didn’t generalise about the Rroma, or the gypsies as they are known in UK, when I was a kid. This wasn’t because I was brought up to be sympathetic to this ethnic minority, or we had Rroma friends, but simply that we had no contact with them. In the UK there are an estimated 90,000 Roma but they are widely dispersed among an overall population of 62 million. I don’t remember even seeing any British Rroma until I lived alone in a cottage and a couple of tough looking characters came to the door looking for antiques. I sold them an old tennis racquet and my Dad later told me “they were probably checking the house so they could rob it at some point in the future”. Thus was born a sceptical attitude towards the Rroma, but it never turned into full scale prejudice as I had heard so little about them and I was always curious about their mysterious ability to move around like ghosts.
I moved to Romania in early 1990 and found that people really wanted to share their opinions with me, most of which were intelligent and interesting. The only opinions that I found shocking and unacceptable were their views about ethnic minorities. In Tirgu Mures in 1990 (just after the inter-ethnic riots of that year) I met both Romanian and Hungarian students whose views of each other were so fanatical and hateful that it reminded me of what I had read about WW2 propaganda mobilising populations for war. This is when prejudice can become dangerous. Fortunately, Romanians have a remarkable ability to defuse these tensions and deal with these issues peacefully (in the 1990s western journalists were predicting a Yugoslav type war between the races in Transylvania – but this was the conflict that never happened – and the USA continue to refer to the “Transylvania Model” as a regional success story).
One of the differences I can notice in Romania today, as compared to 20 years ago, is the attitude towards the Rroma. Today, educated Romanians are aware that it is unacceptable to express racist attitudes towards the Roma and it is hard to come across the kind of wild prejudice that was commonplace in the 1990s. People today are more unwilling to express these views as anyone who has travelled or studied abroad knows that generalisations about other races do not go down well in the west; you can quickly be branded a racist. But I don’t think these prejudices have gone away and if one gets to know Romanians a bit more one comes across a bedrock of hard prejudice along the lines of “Roma live by theft and begging…they don’t work… they don’t want to send their kids to school”. There is of course some substance to these generalisations – it would be naïve to say that no Rroma are engaged in illegal activities – but it is profoundly inaccurate to say that all of them are.
If you follow the logic of this argument – that Rroma are unable to work or study and are genetically programmed to steal – you can quickly come to the conclusion that the only solution is to deport them (or worse). Considering the level of prejudice that exists towards the Rroma it is a testament to the tolerance of the Romanian people that the situation does not descend into violence or that there is no political party advocating extreme measures (such as Jobbik in Hungary). Last month I was talking to an intelligent and charming Hungarian / Romanian family about the Rroma; the mother told me how the peasants across the country are unable to grow crops without the gypsies stealing everything (“you’ve got no idea what’s going on in the villages” she told me); then her daughter jumped in and said “they should all be shot”. What’s shocking is that these views, at least in my experience, seem to be so widely held in Romania. And there is a terrible logic to it; if the Rroma are genetically programmed to cheat and steal then no amount of investment and positive discrimination can help.
Although not everyone is aware of the details – about 35,000 Roma were deported in WW2 and an estimated 11,000 died – I think it safe to say that most Romanians know that Marshal Antonescu enacted a “solution” to the so-called “Roma problem”. The memory of the deportations seems very fresh today among both Romanians and the Rroma. Nicolae Gheorghe, one of the best known Rroma leaders, recently told me that his mother had very nearly been deported during WW2 but she managed to bribe the gendarme officer. “If it wasn’t for Romania’s corruption” he said, “I would have lost my mother.” He also points out that the term “tigan” had been used to identify the Rroma in the 1940 census and then, a year later, these same tigan were deported. He draws a parallel with the recent attempt by Basescu’s party to re-introduce the term tigan (in place of the official word “Roma”) a year before the census, within the context of deportations from France. “All of this spreads fear among the Rroma, awakens memories of the holocaust and reduces their trust in government” said Gheorghe.
I can understand how hard it is for Romanians to be positive about the Rroma people when all their lives they have been subjected to negative impressions. As soon as Romanian kids can understand they are often intimidated with threats of being sold to the gypsies and one can assume that the older generation will pass down their own sense of prejudice about the Rroma to the kids in their charge. In school and at work it is considered normal to have a prejudice attitude towards the Rroma (I wonder if there is any boss in the land who bans such talk?). In other EU countries the media is not allowed to defame ethnic groups (although the British press do manage to be very offensive about foreign Rroma “scroungers”), but in Romania there seems to be no restriction on this.
During the New Years Eve celebration, when much of the population was glued to the TV, Antena 1’s Vacanta Mare so-called comedy was full of offensive sketches about the Rroma migrants in France. Presenting these events in a prime time TV show gives legitimacy to the racist view that all the Rroma who travel to the west are scammers, beggars and thieves. But does anyone know this for sure? Do we have any research to back up these assumptions? What about all the Rroma tradesmen who go abroad? Are there no Romanian thieves who travel to Western Europe?
I gave up arguing with Romanian people about the Rroma long ago. How can you argue with someone who has a list of stories of Rroma theft and trickery? I have noticed that a lot of Romanians spend years building up a mental dossier of crimes and offences carried out by the Rroma. Even though it is rare (in my experience) that the speaker has personally been robbed or cheated, he invariably has a long list of crimes committed at the market, on the bus or to friends in the area. I find it impossible to challenge such statements without calling the person a liar. And it would be wrong to call him a liar as I am sure that the incidents he is reporting are either true or based on truth; and he sincerely believes them. All I can do is persuade him to not extrapolate his experience to the whole Rroma population. I might say “just because the Rroma are dishonest in your experience does that mean they all are?” Often I get replies which paint a more nuanced picture: “we have a gypsy family living on our block and they are as good as gold. I don’t have anything against that type of gypsy.”
My fallback position in this whole debate is education. I can’t deny or justify what some Rroma do in Romania or Western Europe (and begging on the streets in western capitals has done much to increase anger towards the Rroma in recent years). All I can say is that if a people are denied access to school, public services and jobs this is their reaction; I can explain it but not justify it. I might also add that the Rroma were slaves in Romania for 500 years (until 1865), a fact that seems to be rarely discussed. You invariably come to a point in these discussions when it is said “what can be done?” (this is the point when a taxi driver might mention Antonescu’s solution) and I always say “education is the only answer”.
There is an interesting World Bank report which says that the cost of educating the Rroma would be a lot less than the contribution that educated Roma would make to the country’s GNP. It also says that a Romanian Rroma would earn more money if he/she had completed secondary education. The basis of the report is that the Rroma population is almost 10% of the Romanian population and they represent the future workforce of Romania. To not invest in their education is effectively digging the grave of the Romanian economy. It seems to me that the Rroma are being punished for their unwillingness to conform but the real victims of this (at least in economic terms) are the Romanians.
Many Romanians would find this baffling. Despite the widespread cynicism in Romania, and the general lack of faith in government, there is a strange tendency to believe that you can resolve problems by legislation (I’m sure in a one party system a law can be immediately implemented but in a democracy you have to raise awareness, set up enforcement mechanisms and make sure the money is there to make it work.)
There are numerous laws which give all Romanians free access to education (as well as health care and social security) and many Romanians I have spoken to really believe this is how it is (Romanians often tell me “the problem is the Rroma just don’t want to send their children to school”). But if you go to the Rroma communities, if you visit the schools in the Rroma areas, if you speak to the Rroma NGOs you get a very different impression – that the Rroma population are systematically denied access to quality education.
Note the word “quality” here. It is probably true to say that every Rroma family in the land could send their kids to a local school but many choose not to because of the poor quality of their local school. Is this because all Rroma don’t value education or because the schools in the Rroma areas are bad? Much of the Rroma population live in villages and village schools in general are starved of resources, and the schools in the Rroma areas particularly so. The 48 inspectorates for education have all sorts of urgent demands on budgets that are totally inadequate for the task of educating the population (let alone investing in the Rroma). They struggle to pay for the winter heating bills and teachers’ salaries (even though they are probably the worst paid teachers in the EU). These inspectorates have to prioritise and it is easy to understand that they would choose the best city centre schools. If you visit any city centre in the country you will see a freshly painted school with a concrete yard; visit any Rroma village and be sure to see unpainted school buildings, outside toilets and a mud yard. But, in my experience, it is hard to find a Romanian who is willing to admit that this is the real situation.
I have spoken to many Rroma families about these issues and it is easy to understand their perspective. Those I spoke to would like to have their kids in school but there are two main problems: the minor barriers and the overall value of the experience. The immediate problem is clothes and books. To send your kid to school in Romania you need to invest in new clothes (there is an unwritten law that every school child needs to be smartly dressed); and you have to buy books and other supplies. Many Rroma families can’t afford any of this. The other problem is the overall value of education. To benefit you need to finish at least 8 years of school and many Rroma families prioritise various trades as a route to financial independence. If a father knows a trade that makes money it is easy to understand why he would want his boys to work as his apprentice. “He’s being educated by me” the father might say.
One of the more impressive NGOs that helps Rroma kids is Ovidiu Rom, run by the local celebrity Leslie Hawke. Her mission is to get every Romanian child into kindergarten by 2020. Hawke has been working on education issues in Romania for over 10 years and she started off working with older kids, but came to the (rather obvious) conclusion that if the kids don’t get into kindergarten they will not be able to integrate into a school, they will be socially handicapped and will be unable to contribute to society. She has numerous stories of Rroma families who are denied access to good schools by bureaucratic head teachers who have an array of excuses they can use to exclude children they don’t like the look of.
Hawke has been very successful in raising money from the corporate sector (in fact, she is a case study as one of the most successful fundraisers in Romania) but she has failed to make much impression on the Ministry of Education who continue to cling to their old fashioned and elitist model of education (creating a Soviet style intellectual elite while ignoring the needs of those at the bottom). Ovidiu Rom knows exactly how much it costs to “invest” in a child to be supported through kindergarten – they ask sponsors for 420 Euro per child, to pay for clothes and supplies for one academic year – and they have evaluation and impact reports that would delight any bureaucrat (for example, this report claims a 79% “perfect kindergarten attendance” in 19 villages. Why is the Romanian government not learning from this sensible and low cost pilot project? Why are they not investing in their own children? Is spending a million Euro on a grotesque statue to Caragiale outside the national theatre a better investment?
I know that the situation is a lot more complex than I have presented here; I know that education is not the only answer; I know that employment may well be the key (if a Rroma family have a steady income they are more likely to send their kids to school and resolve many of the usual problems). All I know for sure is that generalising doesn’t help – it forms the bedrock of prejudice (which in turn acts as a barrier for Rroma accessing jobs, school and public services). Generalistions are a roadblock on the route to finding a solution. Intellectually it is difficult to sustain generalisations about the Rroma as they are so easy to contradict, and this can be stressful. It’s like forming a defensive line in a battle with not enough troops.
I try to have a neutral opinion about the Roma. All I can do is listen and learn. Teodor Tita, the editor of www.contributors.ro, recently told me “we just don’t know the Roma. We don’t understand them”. And it’s true. Even though I have built up a series of impressions about the Roma, and I have met a wide range of them, I can’t say that I really know them. All I can do is try to keep an open mind about them, not form rigid opinions, listen to everyone’s view, make time to visit Roma people as often as possible and make sure I respect the various opinions. Intellectually it’s so much easier to not have to defend a fixed position and it means that I am always open to learning more about the situation. It means I am always willing to discuss potential solutions. All this may sound impressive but it’s not; it’s just a combination of curiosity (I’ve never lost that childlike curiosity in the Rroma) and trying to avoid generalising.
Follow Rupert on Twitter, @wolfemurray.